At halftime last night, you could forgive any USMNT fan for thinking they had never left 1997. I know I did. Here we all were, too late on a school night, watching a US team getting paddled in Central America with the crowd going nuts and the American manager looking utterly clueless and his players completely lost, all on essentially a pay-per-view feed (Paramount+) that looked like it was being filmed through vaseline in 1974. Hadn’t we moved beyond all this? Was Preki going to show up off the bench?
It’s hard to describe just how abhorrent the US was in the first half against Honduras. And it’s probably only slightly overstating it, if it is at all, to say that had things not changed, Gregg Berhalter might have been out of a job this week. It wasn’t just staring at only two or three points from this first qualifying window. It’s how balloon-handed the team had looked in pretty much every game. There wasn’t any level, players to manager, that looked like it was actually worthy of this stage.
As I’ve stressed before and through this manic three-game stretch, it’s hard to know just how handcuffed Berhalter is by fitness in injury with the games so tightly packed. He didn’t make a tactical sub against Canada until the 80th minute, which looked strange, considering how much the US struggled to produce anything against their defense. But there was another game just three days later, and perhaps he was worried about burning players out for that game as well.
But that doesn’t excuse the bewildering tactical decisions made before the Honduras match, ones that had me flinging beer cans across my living room barely 10 minutes in. And I know I wasn’t alone.
Berhalter switched to a 3-4-3 formation, partly due to the players available and partly due to a desire to shake things up. Except he deployed it in a way that suggested he has no idea how a 3-4-3 works. It ended up being a 3-4-0-3 formation. Ideally, in a 3-4-3, the two “wide” forwards—last night Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent—are supposed to tuck in and form a box with the two central midfielders, A) to close off space in the middle defensively and B) to leave room for the wingbacks to attack. None of these things happened. If you’re not going to do that, then you have to press high and feverishly to squeeze the midfield and not expose the space behind the wingbacks. You have to get up the field. The US didn’t do this either. There was a national park-sized gap behind the three forwards and in front of Kellyn Acosta (whose charms are still lost on me) and James Sands, making his qualifying debut. He’s also a defender most of the time, which made taking the US’s best midfielder, Tyler Adams, and moving him to right wingback even more curious. Acosta and Sands trying to negotiate where to be in this massive gap led them to being nowhere. Honduras’ midfielders had all the time in the world to chip balls behind the wingbacks and stretch the defense. Acosta and Sands’s inability to pass the ball forward without getting a nosebleed left any attack basically generated from Pulisic dribbling through half of Honduras. Not the team, the country.
Naturally, Honduras’ goal came from this gap, with Acosta and Sands marking no one, a simple pass between them, causing John Brooks to go total cowboy and half-heartedly charge into midfield, neither making a tackle nor a foul, leaving a simple pass behind him and a header to be scored from where he should have been in the middle of the box. From there, the US was somehow even worse—rattled, panicked, and even looked like it had given up the fight.
What was worrying about this three-game stretch was just how taken aback by everything Berhalter and the team seemed by their opponents. They didn’t react to El Salvador pressing them. They were completely bamboozled by Canada’s defense. They didn’t respond to Honduras’ cries to be pressed. Does the US not have scouts?
Thankfully, Berhalter didn’t wait around this time, switching back to a 4-3-3 at half and bringing on players to fit that in Antonee Robinson, Sebastien Lletget, and Brendan Aaronson. All would score. Adams would eventually move back into midfield with the introduction of DeAndre Yedlin. The US pressed, caused turnovers, didn’t give up much, and finally showed some fight.
And that’s the thing with this team and Berhalter. We still have no idea if he has any clue tactically, but this team keeps showing guts. This qualifying campaign was very much on the precipice of going totally balls-up. At 1-1, Pulisic left injured. The US managed three more goals without him, Gio Reyna, Sergino Dest, Weston McKennie. It was fucking ugly, and frustrating, and yet it got done. They keep finding a way when they absolutely have to, which is probably no way to live, but it’s not dying either.
Oh, and they might have found their central striker, finally. Ricardo Pepi made his national team debut in this chaos, and while he struggled without service in the first half, he had the winning goal and two assists to his name from the second half. Even at 18, Pepi makes his runs into the box with a menace and purpose that Sargent and Jordan Pefok never had with the national team. He was a threat when allowed to be in the second half. He holds up play well, though he’ll need to get stronger. He connects. More of this, please.
So what do we know now?
Don’t ever play Tyler Adams anywhere but the center of midfield. And right now he doesn’t have a suitable backup, which is a problem because he can’t play every game.
John Brooks is no longer an automatic starter, as he was simply awful in this window. Erratic, slow, and unaware far too often. Miles Robinson is an automatic starter in defense, though.
Brendan Aaronson might be as indispensable as Pulisic or Reyna now.
Ricardo Pepi should be no worse than first option off the bench, and I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but it should only be behind Gyasi Zardes if he’s not going to start.
Matthew Hoppe and Yunus Musah need to be in the next squad.
Berhalter may still be tactically a waif, but the idea that he had lost this team is simply laughable, given the resilience they (finally) showed last night. And with the way this cycle is structured, and the way CONCACAF just is, having balls and displaying them are probably enough to get through.
They may be silly and ignorant, but they’ve got guts, and guts is enough.